This and subsequent posts could be subtitled "what I've learnt over the last little while". A while back, in one of my most rambling posts ever, I reflected on the shortfalls of various items of equipment in my last trekking trip to Salkantay. I realised that I would need to equip myself better for future adventures, if I wanted to enjoy and survive them. As my thoughts turned to Aconcagua, this became more urgent: if you don't have the right gear, they won't even let you start.
Over the last six months, I've gradually acquired many of the things that I need for outdoor adventures. Having undertaken a quite intensive process of research and learning about what to get and how to use it, I thought I would share some of what I've learned. As I've gone along, I've found the anecdotes, reflections and summaries on other people's web pages to be some of the most useful information: more honest than marketing descriptions; more accessible than technical reviews. Perhaps some of what I write here will be of use to someone else.
In this post, I'll cover one of the areas I realised I badly needed to fix after my last trip: footwear. But first, some of the general things I've learned.
The most important thing I've learned is that specialisation is your friend. Getting gear or clothing that is specifically designed for your planned conditions and activities will be repaid hundreds of times over when you're comfortable and competent in those conditions / activities. It may mean that you have to get more individual items, and, yes, perhaps spend a bit more. Trying to get something optimally versatile will likely mean that it will not be quite right for any specific circumstance. This doesn't mean you can't get things that are good for a range of conditions; it just means that it's usually not a good idea to compromise on quality or specifications because you want to cover all bases.
It's also true, to a certain extent, that you "get what you pay for". This does not always amount to a strict ratio of expense to quality. Sometimes, the extra expense of a very costly thing will be because it has additional features that you don't necessarily need for what you are doing. And in many cases, you can get things at the end of a line or in last season's colours, for considerably less than the previous price, and you can be sure that there's little if any quality difference. In other cases, you can pay a premium for details like fit in a garment, which might seem to be a stylistic indulgence, but can actually make a real difference to function, like shutting out cold.
Footwear experiences and recommendations
For hiking and tramping in New Zealand conditions and mountain climbing up to what I plan to do in Peru (daytime temperatures to around -10 Celsius, some non-technical crampon use across light snow and ice), I have a pair of Asolo full-grain leather wide model boots.
(The first link is to the backcountry.com page, which has a lot of reviews for something that seems to be pretty much the same boot as I have, but has a different serial number. The second link is to the exact model of my boots on the Bivouac site. I think the difference with the ones on backcountry.com is that my ones do not have a Gore-Tex lining and do have a specifically wider build.)
These are apparently very popular among New Zealanders -- we tend to have wider feet because we grow up running around without shoes on. Of the several that I tried on in shops, they stood out by immediately feeling "right" and not pinching my feet across their width. From what I've read elsewhere, this is a minimum standard that should be exercised by people purchasing trekking boots and other technical footwear. Although boots do get "broken in", you can't just expect them to mould to your foot after purchase, especially when they are specifically constructed to be rigid in certain areas.
On the other hand, you still need to take a careful approach to sizing. You shouldn't just go with what feels snug and comfortable in the shop like a nice pair of shoes. With boots, you are trying to balance two things:
1. You don't want your heel to be too loose and to lift up too much as you walk, since this is a recipe for blisters and can also affect maneuverability.
2. You don't want your toes to push too much into the front of the boots, because, well, this will destroy your toes.
Obviously, there is something of a trade off between these two desirable qualities. As a rule, when standing in an unlaced boot and pushing your toes all the way to the front, you should be able to fit an index finger snugly in between your heel and the boot. This should mean that when you are going downhill your toes will slide forward to touch the front of the boot, but not press into it. Many shops provide a little incline bench that you can walk up and down to test out footwear.
If in doubt, it's better to be a little on the large side than the small side. First, your feet swell up when you walk. Second, you may want to add more layers of socks in colder conditions. The bottom line is that you can compensate for boots being too big, but not for them being too small.
I've worn the Asolos on several multi-day tramping trips now and am pretty satisfied. As someone who has always avoided boots, I can't believe how comfortable they are. They are probably no hotter or more constricting than most pairs of shoes I've had, and I feel happy to sit around with them on before or after trekking.
I've worked out a system for lacing: when I'm going to be heading mainly uphill, I lace relatively loosely, which reduces the pressure of my heels against the rigid back of the boots. When I'm going to be heading mainly downhill, I lace as tightly as possible so my toes don't push forward too much. So far, I have not come close to getting a blister, although I have definitely felt heat and pressure at certain points. On steep terrain carrying up to 18kg, this may be unavoidable. On several occasions my trekking companions have had blisters despite taking reasonable care with their footwear.
I go with a liner sock / midweight trekking sock combination and find it works well. I tend to run hot and sweat a lot. Either my (expensive) merino or (cheap) synthetic liner socks do a good job of passing that moisture on to the outer layer.
I can't speak to the durability of the Asolos yet, since I've only had them six months or so, but they do get a good rap for this from the past users. They don't have a rubber "bumper bar" over the whole front of the toe like some boots, which is probably good in terms of reducing weight, but it means the leather takes a bit of a hammering. I was a bit disconcerted after my first trip to the Tararuas to find that there were quite a few little chips and nicks in the leather, but after a couple more trips these just seemed to have blended into the surface to form a generally "well-loved" look.
I have also been making an effort to take good care of my boots, and have cleaned and waxed them after every trip, while avoiding wearing them around town to save their soles. My father, who used to have to hound us to polish our school shoes once a week, would be astounded to see me cleaning off the mud with a toothbrush, then lovingly applying leather conditioner and wax. The task is made more pleasant by the fact that natural beeswax smells quite nice and can be applied and rubbed in with your fingers.
For everything else, I've got a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilator trekking shoes. These work well for people like me who feel that they'd really just rather wear their running shoes everywhere, from formal occasions to the tops of mountains. The Ventilators have a mesh-dominated upper, and are close to being as cool and breathable as a pair of regular sneakers. The fact that they are a bit heavier and warmer is due to the extra padding, rubber reinforcement around the toe and heel, and tank-like Vibram soles which means that these shoes actually are appropriate for traipsing up and down mountainsides.
I now wear these around most places and expect them to be good for both the hot asphalt and rough, dusty trails I should soon be encountering in Peru, while also coping with long trips in buses and airplanes and plenty of sitting around writing at a computer.
Originally, I had bought a pair of the Ventilators' cousins, the Pulse II. This has the exact same footbed and sole, but a considerably sturdier upper. This was based on a recommendation by my sister Cecilia's boyfriend Mark, who said he wore them around everywhere, including outdoors in Florida. I guess I run hotter, because it took just one 25-degree afternoon in Wellington for me to decide they wouldn't quite do. Fortunately, the shop let me take them back and exchange them for the Ventilators.
For Aconcagua, I will need to get a pair of double plastic climbing boots that are sufficiently warm to cope with temperatures down to -30 Celsius. So far, I've been able to ascertain that pretty much nowhere in New Zealand carries a range of these boots. When I figure that one out, I'll write an update.